Wander west along the Potomac, where five towns spanning three states make great weekend escapes
By Marty LeGrand
The Chesapeake Bay’s second largest tributary begins humbly: A spring bubbles from West Virginia’s mountains near Davis. The Potomac River slowly summons strength and volume as it drains Maryland’s and Virginia’s highlands, running 400 scenic miles before reaching the Bay. Its watershed is vast (14,700 square miles), historic (home, notably, to the nation’s capital and its first president), and still remarkably wild (over 50 percent forested).
Pick any Potomac contributor—the Monocacy or Shenandoah rivers, Antietam or Catoctin creeks, or the river’s 185-mile-long sidekick, the C&O Canal towpath—and you’ll find captivating nearby towns that reflect a different aspect of our regional character, history, and culture.
Stay: In a dreamy room named for literary lovers (like Jane Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy) at the Nora Roberts-run Inn BoonsBoro, a boutique B&B. The author herself often appears for book signings at her husband’s Turn the Page Bookstore across the street.
Dine: On delicious pub fare and craft beers at Dan’s Restaurant & Tap House. For fine dining, try the hilltop, history-steeped Old South Mountain Inn.
Fish: For trout and bass at Greenbrier Lake.
Two things tend to lure travelers to Boonsboro: war and romance. Nestled beside South Mountain, the ridge where the Appalachian Trail traverses Maryland, Boonsboro boasts dual distinctions. Civil War buffs know it as the locale of two pivotal battles; Boonsboro is surrounded by parks commemorating local and Civil War history. Book clubbers know it as the adopted home of beloved romance novelist Nora Roberts, who along with her husband owns several tourist-welcoming businesses.
Begin your visit at Washington Monument State Park and climb the nation’s first towering tribute to George Washington, built of stones by Boonsboroans in 1827. Exhibits at the park’s visitor center summarize the Civil War’s Maryland Campaign, which began 160 years ago with the Battle of South Mountain and led to the bloody clash beside Antietam Creek. Antietam National Battlefield in nearby Sharpsburg commemorates those hallowed grounds. At Gathland State Park, another 19th-century memorial, the War Correspondents Arch, honors Civil War journalists and photographers.
Stay: In a mountain-view room at Rocky Gap Casino Resort, an acclaimed lakeside resort 10 minutes from the city. The resort offers dining, golf, a spa, casino, and comedy club in a state park setting.
Dine: On authentic wood-fired pizza at Puccini Restaurant, where Italian home cooking meets history. The handsomely restored building once served as a Civil War hospital. For yummy frozen custard and tasty lunches, stop by local favorite Queen City Creamery.
Kayak: The deep blue water of Rocky Gap’s Lake Habeeb.
Strategically perched at a fork in the North Branch of the Potomac, Cumberland has been a military outpost, frontier town, and industrial/transportation hub—a past that is gone but not forgotten. The city’s history and its recent notoriety among outdoors enthusiasts merge at Canal Place, a pedestrian mall and visitors site that welcomes passing hikers, cyclists, and road-trippers.
Two long-distance cycling routes—the C&O Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage—meet here midway between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. But those aren’t Cumberland’s only trailheads. Treat your tastebuds to tours of local coffee and donuts, ice cream, and wine/beer/spirits trails. Explore Cumberland’s ties to the canal, railroads, the National Road (Route 40), and to George Washington at the Visitor Center and the Allegany Museum, which occupy downtown landmarks. (Geek alert: Don’t miss the museum’s pioneering use of artificial intelligence; age-regression technology has rendered Washington as a teenager.)
Harper’s Ferry, WVa.
Stay: In a deluxe suite at the restored 18th-century Light Horse Inn in neighboring Bolivar. Within walking distance of the national park, the inn offers free breakfasts and a bar/live music venue.
Dine: On Kelley Farm Kitchen’s palate-pleasing, plant-based breakfasts, burgers, bratwursts, and crabcakes. Or sample neighboring Loudon County, Virginia’s vineyards. In summer, Maggie Malick Wine Caves of Purcellville hosts dockdog competitions and a fundraiser that benefits rescued Labrador retrievers.
Float: On mellow flat water on the Shenandoah or whitewater rapids on the Potomac.
Topography and history define Harpers Ferry. Three states, two rivers, and a singular moment in national consciousness converge in this ruggedly beautiful, carefully preserved town. When abolitionist John Brown launched his failed 1859 raid on the arsenal here, it so inflamed pro- and anti-slavery tensions that civil war soon followed. This hillside outpost where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet looks much as it did then, held in stasis as a national park and historic district.
All park but no parking, Harpers Ferry National Historic Park in lower town is best accessed by shuttle bus or downhill stroll. Don’t miss John Brown’s Fort, where Brown and followers barricaded themselves; the Storer College/Niagara Movement exhibit exploring the town’s historically black college and famous civil rights gathering; and the park association bookshop, for a well-curated collection of books for all ages. Hike up Jefferson Rock, Maryland Heights, or Bolivar Heights for mesmerizing vistas and a possible glimpse of cliff-nesting peregrine falcons. At night, take a spine-tingling ghost tour of historic sites.
Stay: At the ultra-romantic Inn at Springfield Manor, a 1700s fieldstone house where Edgar Allan Poe reportedly spent his honeymoon; you can book the very third-floor room in which the Poes stayed. Imbibe at the onsite winery-distillery-brewery, offering house rye and corn whiskeys and award-winning gin made from estate-grown lavender.
Dine: On rib-sticking country cooking (pot pie, specialty fried chicken) at Thurmont Kountry Kitchen, leaving room for house-made pies and colossal cupcakes. Buy local produce, jams and butters, and baked goods at Catoctin Mountain Orchard.
Fly fish: For catch-and-release trout at Big Hunting Creek.
A small town with a large profile, Thurmont boasts a historic presidential sanctuary; Maryland’s largest cascading waterfall and premier brook trout streams; a rich legacy of whiskey making; stunning fall foliage; and an unusual number of alligators, cockatoos, pythons, and zebras. The critters live in a zoo. The other attractions reside in or around town, and in two mountain parks.
At Catoctin Mountain Park, you can’t visit Camp David, the 84-year-old rustic retreat reserved for presidents, but you can hike, fish, and see relics of yore, including a moonshiners’ still. At Cunningham Falls State Park, chill beside the falls, which tumble 78 rocky feet; swim at the lake; and see rehabilitating raptors at the park aviary. Bike or hike the Trolley Trail, which follows a rail line that carried summer tourists a century ago. Take a safari ride at Catoctin Wildlife Preserve, home to hundreds of exotic animals.
Stay: In a private cottage or the 1785 manor house at the Inn at Vaucluse Spring in Stephens City. This off-the-beaten-path B&B specializes in wellness retreats and Blue Ridge Mountain scenery.
Dine: Where locals go for special occasions, Village Square Restaurant, serving contemporary American fare in historic Old Town. For finger-licking barbecue, try pit-cooked pork, brisket, and ribs at Shaffer’s BBQ & Market, housed in a renovated gas station in Middletown.
Canoe: On the South Fork Shenandoah from Front Royal.
Located north of where the Shenandoah River’s two forks merge to form the main river, Winchester makes the perfect spot from which to explore the pastoral Shenandoah Valley’s twin mountain ranges, famous orchards, and scenic roadways, including Skyline Drive.
Begin in the city, whose charming centerpiece is a two-block pedestrian mall. Don’t miss the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, a complex that includes Glen Burnie, an 18th-century home noted for its fabulous decorative arts collection and intimate formal gardens. Museums, battlefields, and annual re-enactments honor Winchester’s strategic role in the Civil War, and the Patsy Cline Historic House preserves the country music legend’s childhood home. Late April’s Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival highlights Winchester’s social calendar, while other festivals seasonally celebrate the apple and peach harvests and local wines and beers. Admire the starry heavens at Sky Meadows State Park, an international dark sky park offering astronomy programs.